What’s wrong with our military?

In this article, Atlantic writer James Fallows examines why the most expensive and technologically advanced military in the history of the world has lost every single one of its recent wars.

A brief summary of his points:

1. Unwillingness to criticize. The American public, which has grown increasingly disengaged from the armed forces as fewer families have relatives serving in uniform, idolizes its soldiers and allows Congress to throw money at the services while overlooking the military’s failures and shortcomings.

2. Lack of accountability. The public doesn’t demand accountability, and politicians don’t impose it; military leaders are no longer fired for lousy job performance, not even for losing wars. “Citizens notice when crime is going up, or school quality is going down, or the water is unsafe to drink, or when other public functions are not working as they should,” Fallows writes. But they ignore problems with the military. Top-ranking officers get relieved now only for sexual or financial improprieties.

3. Public indifference. “America’s distance from the military makes the country too willing to go to war, and too callous about the damage warfare inflicts.” Fallows blames this primarily on the gulf between civilian society and the professional military caste, but it’s exacerbated by government efforts to shield the public from the ugly truths of war (by, for example, banning publication of photos of flag-draped caskets).

4. The military-industrial complex. “We spend too much money on the military and we spend it stupidly …. We buy weapons that have less to do with battlefield realities than with … the economic interests and political influence of contractors. This leaves us with expensive and delicate high-tech white elephants, while unglamorous but essential tools, from infantry rifles to armored personnel carriers, too often fail our troops.”

5. Overreliance on technology.  America invests heavily in expensive high-tech weaponry in the belief that technological superiority gives its forces a decisive edge, but these advantages often “melt away before the older, messier realities of improvised weapons, sectarian resentments, and mounting hostility to occupiers from afar, however well-intentioned.” Also, technological capability can be strategically detrimental; for example, armed drones “have killed individuals or small groups at the price of antagonizing whole societies.”

6. Overspending and misallocation of resources. “After adjustments for inflation, the United States will spend about 50 percent more on the military this year than its average through the Cold War and Vietnam War [and] as much as the next 10 nations combined,” but despite this massive spending, “such is the dysfunction and corruption of the budgeting process that even as spending levels rise, the Pentagon faces simultaneous crises in funding for maintenance, training, pensions, and veterans’ care.”

7. Pork barrel politics. “The system is based on lies and self-interest, purely toward the end of keeping money moving. [T]the services get their budgets, the contractors get their deals, the congressmen get jobs in their districts, and no one who’s not part of the deal bothers to find out what is going on.”

8. Careerism. A newly-elected Democratic congressman says the military is populated by “people who have gotten where they are by checking all the boxes and not taking risks. … I know an awful lot of senior officers who are very afraid to make a tough choice because they’re worried how it will look on their fitness report.” That’s because a single nick from a disgruntled superior on an officer’s record is enough to block further promotion and end his career.

Executive summary:  “At enormous cost, both financial and human, the nation supports the world’s most powerful armed force. But because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action, the normal democratic feedbacks do not work. … [P]ublic inattention to the military, born of having no direct interest in what happens to it, has allowed both strategic and institutional problems to fester.” In other words, ordinary Americans are no longer involved in America’s wars, and because of that, we’re fighting themRoger-Rabbit-icon1 and losing them.

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